Liz George was at her local gym in Michigan in June when she saw something deeply off-putting. One of the holds on a top-rope route she was climbing was shaped like the Laughing Buddha (a monk who attained enlightenment after the original Gautama Buddha, also known as Budai and Hotei). The hold was set in a place where both grabbing it and stepping on it would assist a climber on their way to the top of the wall. George, a climber of Indian descent who grew up Christian and doesn’t “particularly follow any religion anymore,” avoided the Budai hold, which made the route more difficult. “If there was a crucifix up, it would be weird,” she says. “I couldn’t step on anything that’s sacred to anyone.”
While Budai is typically depicted wearing or holding prayer beads, the climbing hold’s necklace included an unusual addition: an eGrips logo. On the climbing hold company’s website, George found that the hold was available for $63. A description from the company read, “Ommmmm? What more can we say? The archetypal image of amazing eGrips artistry is perhaps the most recognized theme hold among fine routesetters.” The Buddha hold has been made since 2003 and was part of a “Characters” series, which includes sea monsters, fictional character Mr. Smiles, and jungle animals. There are no Christian or other religious characters on sale.
George saw the hold as emblematic of the callousness of white climbing culture. “To be honest, it’s been a lot of things adding up at the gym and in the climbing community where I keep staying quiet because I don’t want to be the person to upset people,” George says. “But it’s gotten to a point where it’s just so frustrating. So I reached out to eGrips.”
She found the company’s response equally troubling. George shared her concerns with eGrips over a phone call. Soon after, she received an email from a company representative saying the hold was a comment on the calm people feel in climbing and was not outside the realm of common use for the image: “We feel it is appropriate and respectful to sell this hold.”
George was not convinced by the response, which she said felt like a hollow excuse. She wrote back: “My main point is that eGrips and other American/Western companies should not find it appropriate to sell something just because someone before them commodified and misappropriated a culture outside of their own.” She took to social media after emailing back and forth with the company. Addressing people of color in the climbing community, George wrote, “How do you feel about stepping on Buddha?” As her posts spread, other climbers deluged eGrips with complaints. The company eventually discontinued the hold, but the process left a bad impression with many climbers of color. Catherine Tao, a rock climber and mountaineer, was visiting her ailing grandmother in Taiwan when she saw posts about the hold on Instagram. “It wasn’t surprising, but I guess it was extra insulting given the circumstances of where I was. My grandmother’s Buddhism was a big part of her life,” Tao says. “I had just finished praying at a Buddhist altar and turned on my phone and saw this, and I’m like, ‘Ah, that sucks.’”
George was confused by the company’s defensiveness about a hold she doubts was a top seller. Chris Klinke, president of eGrips, confirms it was not. When I asked him if he saw how the hold could be off-putting to Buddhists, he responded, “You’re assuming my religion isn’t Buddhism.” Klinke is not Buddhist, although he says he has a deep respect for the religion, which he formed during mountaineering trips in the Himalayas. Klinke says the person who designed the hold had been practicing Buddhism in Boulder, Colorado, for “several years” when he created it.
“It was a hold that people treated with respect and reverence,” says Klinke, citing conversations with gym owners and setters. “Most people, most gyms, and, again, I can’t say it was everybody, have treated the Laughing Buddha as a finish hold or put it as a blessing on the wall.”
George says the root of the issue is the commodification and appropriation of Buddhism and how it impacts people from cultures for whom Buddhism is a central part of life and tradition. She doesn’t buy the hold’s spiritual intent.
Klinke says the company’s response was appropriate and that he wasn’t aware of George’s complaint until after the company’s first response. He says the first representative was acting out of the limits of his authority in his response to George. “The concern was raised. It was raised by multiple people within a short span of time,” he says. “We’ve listened. It took a week. I don’t think that’s a long time to make a decision on anything.” George maintains that from what she could see, an eGrips employee initially said they would keep producing the hold, and the company changed its position only after pressure increased.
The appropriation of Eastern religions is a common trend in the West. Tao says it’s common to see pieces of Buddhism taken out of context and used to sell products. Many companies sell T-shirts featuring an image of Budai along with a catchphrase like “don’t be a dick” or “let that shit go.” The elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh has been used to market socks, yoga mats, and leggings.
George and Tao say they have a complicated relationship with the climbing community. “It feels really painful to love a sport where not all of the corners of it are safe,” Tao says. The climbing gym is where George most feels at home, so it feels doubly painful when she hears something racist or is slighted because she’s Indian. “It’s a community that I’m willing to fight for, because it has given me a sense of home, and I know that it can be better,” she says. George notes that her local gym took the hold down after she raised her concerns.
George sees removing the Buddha hold from eGrips as one way to make the community a better place for climbers of color. While Tao is happy they’ve taken the hold down, she wants to see more.
“That’s a great first step, but I think that if that’s the only step, that’s kind of a cowardly step. I want them to make a public statement that includes an apology but also explains why they took it down,” Tao says. (Klinke says that after the negative outcry, the company decided making a statement wasn’t in the best interest of its employees.) “I also want them to send some kind of other statement out to gyms that have purchased this hold and to tell them not to use it. Without that, it just gets swept under the rug.”
Lead photo: Stocksy/Jovana Milanko/Art by Petra Zeiler